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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 568

The title of A Fanatic Heart is drawn from William Butler Yeats’s “Remorse for Intemperate Speech,” cited as an epigraph to introduce the volume. Indeed, in these lines are summarized O’Brien’s ongoing, dominant themes of Ireland and the women of Ireland in their “maimed” search for loving relationships.

O’Brien continued...

(The entire section contains 568 words.)

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The title of A Fanatic Heart is drawn from William Butler Yeats’s “Remorse for Intemperate Speech,” cited as an epigraph to introduce the volume. Indeed, in these lines are summarized O’Brien’s ongoing, dominant themes of Ireland and the women of Ireland in their “maimed” search for loving relationships.

O’Brien continued to write short stories all of her life, and she began publishing in this genre in the early 1960’s. “Come into the Drawing Room, Doris” (ironically retitled “Irish Revel” in The Love Object and given the same title in A Fanatic Heart) first appeared in The New Yorker on April 25, 1962. Set in Ireland, this story, very clearly after the manner of James Joyce in “The Dead” in his Dubliners (1914), is an indictment of an entire society. Sprinkled with holy water by her overly protective mother, Mary, the heroine, who is observed by the omniscient narrator, sets off from her farm home on her bicycle to the shabby Commercial Hotel in the village and to her first party.

It turns out to be a miserable work-party for her; the married artist with whom Mary had danced two years before, and about whom she had fantasized, is not there. Only eight locals are present for the roast goose and the liquor. Eithne and Doris are there—brash village girls who complement Mary’s innate, refined naïveté; they amuse themselves “wandering from one mirror to the next.” “Doris” is the name that the drunken, truculent O’Toole three times calls Mary, having spiked her orange drink, wanting her to come out of the room with him. Doris is an unlikely identity for the discreet Mary, but her image, O’Brien indicates, is in trouble anyhow: Her mother had already converted into a dustpan the sketch of her drawn by the artist whom she had romanticized. The party is a failure.

As the final paragraph indicates, “Mary could see her own little house, like a little white box at the end of the world, waiting to receive her.” In this story, the family battle lines are not developed. The omniscient narrator leaves it at that, in a well-crafted tale, rich in the evocative minutiae of daily living and balky bicycles in the west of Ireland in the 1940’s. It is a picture rich in its natural descriptions of, for example, the blood-red fuchsia, and rich, too, in its cast of characters, who all have their stories. Some of these characters, such as Hickey, readers have already met (The Country Girls Trilogy), and some will appear later. The themes suggested here—overprotective mothers, the unfortunate search for a companion, and an ignorant, brutal society set among natural beauties—will also recur, as O’Brien increasingly and carefully works and reworks her fictions.

O’Brien’s pessimism about much of the female condition shows little alleviation in her short-story collection, A Rose in the Heart, or in the collection Returning, where the external topography in all nine stories is the familiar west of Ireland and the craggy community there. A young girl is present in all of the stories, either as the ostensible narrator or as the subject for more mature reflection on the part of a now-experienced woman. The American novelist Philip Roth isolates this then-and-now tension between the innocence of childhood and the experience of fifty years of living as the spring for these stories’ “wounded vigor.”

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